Barely two months after the Youhanabad incident another Christian community might unfortunately join Gojra town, Joseph colony and Kot Radha Kishan – among others – as TNT on the brink of being lit up by opportunistic savages. After the 27-year-old Humayun Masih, resident of Sandha, Lahore, had been accused of burning pages of the Quran, Christians have begun fleeing the town. Those with no other option but to stay put, can feel the heat of the fire that has burned down towns and villages over unsubstantiated accusations conjured by those lying in the wait to see their brittle religiosity being inexplicably shattered. They did manage to loot 15 houses on Sunday as compensation for hurt religious sentiments.
Humayun, father of two, was handed over to the police just in time to save him from the wrath of the mob that is ever ready to play God. Pakistan Penal Code’s section 295-B was triggered to arrest the man who has been diagnosed with mental instability. Humayun won’t be the last Pakistani non-Muslim whose life will be deemed less valuable than burnt pieces of paper, impalpable esteem of historical figures, or intangible sentiments. And it is the Penal Code itself which reduces the worth of certain lives by elevating the stature of specific ideas and beliefs as being more valuable than a human being’s right to life.
Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code was introduced in 1860 as a part of the Indian Penal Code, which was adopted by Pakistan following the Partition. Section 295 deals with ‘injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class’. A variation of this clause exists in 22% countries of the world including the likes of Germany, Denmark, Canada and Australia. The clause helps shield places of worship from deliberate and malicious attacks from members of other religious – or irreligious – communities, which is exactly what the British Raj intended to ensure in the Indian subcontinent.
Considering that virtually a quarter of the world has a blasphemy law , why then does the Muslim world generally, and Pakistan specifically, hog the limelight vis-à-vis blatant misuse of the law? The answer lies in the evolution of the section 295 since 1860, which has ensured that the law designed to ensure religious harmony has boomeranged as a potent tool for religious hardliners to silence critics and settle personal scores.
Section 295-A of the Penal Code deals with ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’. The clause was added in 1927 after Ilam Din (popularly known as Ghazi Ilam Din Shaheed) murdered Rajpal, the publisher – not the writer – of a ‘blasphemous’ book. Fearing communal riots, that were already brimming over following the book’s release, and the ensuing murder, the British Raj vied to forestall any repeats. Both Section 295 and 295-A exist in the original form in the Indian Penal Code as well.
While section 295-A can be misused to curb free speech in the garb of ‘protecting religious beliefs’, should a jurisprudence be willing to give preference to civil law whenever it is at loggerheads with religion, the verbiage allows sufficient room to manoeuvre. Sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, however, leave no breathing space for tolerance.
Even though many members of the Pakistani intelligentsia prefer to blame the ‘British’ for ‘their colonial blasphemy laws’, what they fail to acknowledge is that the ‘colonial’ clauses exist around the globe and in many countries, like Australia, haven’t been activated for nearly a century. Section 295-A itself, despite its antagonism to freedom of speech, was intended to quell communal violence among the locals. It is the Pakistan-specific Islamic clauses that have made the blasphemy law a violent altar for human sacrifice.
While the sections 295 and 295-A shielded all religions equally, and hence were rarely triggered, the Ziaul Haq sponsored sections 295-B and 295-C were Islam-specific, and incorporated capital punishment for defiling Islamic scriptures and ‘tauheen-e-risalat’. By adding harsher clauses, exclusive to safeguarding Islam, the status of all other religions was shrunk to the point of irrelevance. Every mob, or individual, that threatens to burn down towns, or murder ‘blasphemers’, is endeavouring to enact the punishment for blasphemy as mentioned in the Pakistan Penal Code.
Although none of the sections explicitly encourage anyone to take the law into their own hands, any Penal Code that blatantly discriminates between religions, and citizens on ideological basis, inevitably nurtures the ground for the radicals of the elevated religion to ensure ‘swift justice’. The only reason why non-Muslims are vulnerable to accusations of blasphemy is because the law doesn’t safeguard their status as equals and their religion as worthy of similar respect. And hence when a religiously incited mob has to decide between the ‘sanctity of Islam’ and the lives of people sanctioned as lesser humans by law, the choice becomes a no-brainer.
From 1947 to 1986, the year when sections 295-B and 295-C were sanctioned, only 14 blasphemy cases were reported. There were over 100 accusations of blasphemy last year. 62 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990; more than half of them in the last five years – none through proper judicial procedure. Blasphemy accusations are launched over misspelt names, broadcasting Sufi songs and sometimes for the crime of being a free-thinker who doesn’t want to be shackled by antediluvian theologies.
The only reason why blasphemy accusations are flung is because it’s a murderous claim, which can be a crime of conscience and not necessarily an incitement to violence. To halt the precipitously escalating allegations, Pakistan has two options: either to eliminate the death penalty for blasphemy, or to implement the same law for all religions.
In a country where other religions are blatantly insulted in school curricula, defilers of other places of worship, like Mahmud Ghaznavi, are celebrated as national heroes and takfiri kings like Aurangzaib Alamgir (who co-authored the Fatwa-e-Alamgiri to excommunicate the Shia) are extolled as flag-bearers of Muslim rule, applying sections 295-B and 295-C to other religions would mean mass executions of authors, teachers, TV artists and almost every renowned member of the Muslim clergy.
Blasphemy law as a token clause in jurisprudence can be useful to counter organised attempts to target specific ideologies, should civil law be given preference to curb misuse that targets freedom of speech. A similar version of the law can ensure peace and tolerance in Pakistan as well. Ironically, it would have to start with outlawing – among other sections – the section 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code which subtly targets the Shia and blatantly curbs the Ahmadis’ right to religion and self-identification.